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Ordaining Aaron and his sons and sanctifying the altar: Exodus 29–31

The instructions for sacrifices are detailed. Surprisingly, they include wheat products.

The first listed here was part of the consecration ceremony for Aaron and his sons. Along with sacrificing animals, Aaron was to:

Exodus 29:2 Then, using choice wheat flour and no yeast, make loaves of bread, thin cakes mixed with olive oil, and wafers spread with oil.

The Israelites had been out of Egypt only for a few months. The consecration of priests was not an everyday event, and it wasn’t a lot of flour (or olive oil), and the Israelites could easily have brought it with them when they left Egypt.

But then we get to the instructions for daily offerings:

Exodus 29:38-40 These are the sacrifices you are to offer regularly on the altar. Each day, offer two lambs that are a year old, one in the morning and the other in the evening. With one of them, offer two quarts of choice flour mixed with one quart of pure oil of pressed olives; also, offer one quart of wine as a liquid offering.

That’s about 14 litres of flour and 7 litres of oil a week—or about 28,000 litres (almost 15 tonnes) of flour over the 39 years from the first offering at Sinai. It’s about the same volume a standard fuel delivery truck in Australia can carry.

So where did all that wheat come from?

The wheat came from somewhere

To start with, it’s unlikely to have come from Egypt—the Israelites had already complained about lack of food, and the total was too much to carry for 39 years.

But they didn’t need the total 39 years of flour in advance. The flour for these offerings wasn’t needed when these instructions were given: the Tabernacle wasn’t finished until a year after the Israelites had left Egypt. Once the offerings did start, only 14 litres a week of flour was needed, and it wasn’t all needed at once.

Two likely options are:

  • Some of it could have been plunder from the defeated Amalekites in Exodus 7:8-16
  • The Israelites passed through and around other territories, and they could have traded some of the jewellery, livestock and other produce they’d brought from Egypt in exchange for wheat (and for other items). They could have plundered a bit long the way, too.

Some have suggested it could have been wild (also called ‘volunteer’) wheat, which had been growing in the region for hundreds if not thousands of years before the exodus. The only problem is the Israelites were later complaining:

Numbers 20:5 Why did you make us leave Egypt and bring us here to this terrible place? This land has no grain, no figs, no grapes, no pomegranates, and no water to drink!

It was probably hyperbole (exaggerating their case to make a point): there was water, even if it was miraculously provided. They would have all been dead otherwise. More likely, the complaint was about abundance rather than presence/absence: volunteer grain was harder work to gather than produce from well-watered agricultural fields on the Nile delta. And who wouldn’t want fruit crops that, coincidentally, grew only in well-watered areas?

Miraculous provision is also a possibility, but it’s recorded only for quail, manna, water, victory over aggressors, and the durability of clothing and other personal items. There’s also the issue of sacrifices needing to cost something to be sacrificial.

So trade and plunder are the two most likely sources of wheat for flour, with the possibility of harvesting of wild wheat if the Israelites happened to be somewhere it was growing at the right time of year.

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